There are some dark days when you are sitting in a hospital with a child who has cancer.
Nina Hufford knows this feeling all too well.
Roarke, a then cross-country star at Maywood Middle School in Renton, Wash., was just 12 years old when his mother started noticing his eyes drifting. Nina thought Roarke had developed lazy eye and scheduled a checkup at the ophthalmologist, but the routine visit revealed something much more.
“She immediately told me that I need to go to Seattle Children’s for an MRI,” Nina recalled. “So, we did in the middle of the night, probably around midnight, a doctor came into the room and showed us an image of Roarke’s brain. We didn’t really know what we were looking at. We don’t know what a brain’s supposed to look like, what’s supposed to be where, but he immediately pointed to a mass in the very center of Roarke’s brain and told us that Roarke had a brain tumor.”
First, neurosurgeons would need to biopsy the most important organ in Roarke's body, his brain. The invasive surgical procedure posed several risks, but Nina had no choice but to act against the battlefield growing inside of Roarke, and she had to do so immediately.
The day following the brain biopsy, Nina ran home to take a quick shower and to check on Roarke’s two sisters who were being watched by a friend in their neighborhood. Roarke was with his dad in the hospital room when he heard a knock.
“A nurse opened up my door and said hey Roarke you have a visitor, it’s Russell Wilson,” Roarke said. “Russell and Ciara came in; they were super nice. They said they were really inspired by me. They said I was fighting a really hard battle. They were super nice to me...
It didn’t take long for Seattle Children’s patients like Roarke to think of Wilson as more than a quarterback, he was their hero.
Philanthropic gestures and selfless contributions like these are why Wilson was recently nominated for a second time in his storied career as the Seahawks Walter Payton Man of the Year.
Beauty is more than skin deep
Days after Harper Foy was born on Sept. 20, 2015, doctors diagnosed her with an incredibly rare genetic condition known as Harlequin Ichthyosis (HI) which occurs in just 1 of 500,000 newborns. The condition was undetectable in utero and Harper was given just a 50 percent chance to survive, but she was a fighter.
Over the next few months, Harper’s mom, Angie, said the Seattle Children’s staff came up with a one-of-a-kind treatment plan to assess Harper’s unique condition. Fearing Harper could lose her limbs, doctors worked tirelessly to release the scales and restore circulation to her extremities, in the process they saved her hands and feet.
The day before Harper was set to be discharged from Seattle Children’s, Wilson and his teammate Bobby Wagner walked into her room. Angie, whose family has had Seahawks season tickets for over 30 years, was rendered speechless.
“That was the best goodbye present ever because they walked in and we got to meet them,” Angie recalled. “So, she got to meet them when she was first born like Russell went to go hold her and she freaked out. She totally had a meltdown and spit her binky out at him...
Today Harper is just like any five-year-old. She’s vivacious, spunky and wants to play football just like her older brother, Jaxson. Because of her rare disorder, Angie gives Harper 2-3 baths a day and uses jars of Aquaphor to provide relief to her daughter’s body. She says the skin regime can be tedious, but it’s well worth it for Harper.
Harper doesn’t look like other kids her age, but her appearance hasn’t stopped her from redefining society’s standards of beauty. She signed with Seattle based modeling agency TCM Models & Talent and was recently the star of a photoshoot organized by Seattle Children’s.
“They asked her what her favorite thing was, and she said Russell Wilson, the Seahawks, and they did it all,” Angie explained. “So, when we arrived there, we pulled up up front, they had a red carpet out for her, they were all waiting and chanting for us down the hall, and we walked into this little dressing room with her name on it and all this Seahawks gear. It had the little tutu and her jersey, and it was the best day. She still talks about it. Actually, she still wears that tutu, and we didn’t get rid of the jersey, we still have it. I can’t get rid of it; I’ve got to keep it forever.”
A 12 for life
In the months leading up to Jackson Boboth’s leukemia diagnosis, the 7-year-old was just like any kid. He enjoys playing hockey in the cul de sac, jumping on the trampoline, and watching Seahawks games with his dad, Everett, and identical twin brother Owen.
Jackson just really started getting into Hawks games and noticed the quarterback right away. Jackson quickly became Wilson's greatest fan.
So when the Boboth family found themselves traveling nearly 200 miles from Grandview, Wash., to Seattle Children’s Hospital in mid-November, Everett didn’t know Jackson had something invisible inside of him, slowly killing him. Looking for a silver lining in what would likely be a grueling next few days for his son and family, Boboth remembered Wilson had spent time frequenting the hospital’s intensive care and cancer units.
“About one of the only things I knew about Children’s other than it had a good reputation is oh that’s where Russell Wilson goes every Tuesday because I’ve seen videos and stuff from all the past several years,” Everett explained. “You’re just trying to find something positive in that moment because you know he’s going to have to do a lot of hard things regardless of what’s coming up. He’s going to have a hard future in front of him and giving him a little bit of something exciting can go a long way. So, I told him, Russell Wilson sometimes comes to this hospital. “Really?” Jackson said. And he was really excited in the back, so it was one little moment in the middle of all the questions that I didn’t know the answers to that he was asking what was coming for him to give him a little bit of excitement.”
Days at Seattle Children’s quickly turned into months for Jackson and his family after he was diagnosed with t-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. While leukemia in kids is rare, it’s also the most common of kids’ pediatric cancers.
"He had a big mass in his chest, and it was pushing on his airway," Everett said. “It wasn’t closed, but it was pushing on it. ... normally they would put him under anesthesia and get his port in right away and start getting him his chemotherapy, but because of this mass they couldn’t do that. So, they gave him steroids to shrink the mass down for a few days and he had to get chemo straight through IV lines in his arm for those first few days. It was five or six days in, it had shrunk enough that they were able to put the port in and he’s just been getting it through his port ever since.”
During the last week of Jackson’s in-patient care, a day that Everett remembers as one of the Jackson’s toughest days, Seattle Children’s child life specialist, Garrett Goody, arranged a virtual visit between Jackson and his Seahawks idol.
Wilson and Jackson quickly bonded over their loathing for COVID-19 tests during the Zoom call.
“He did ask him how often he had to take the COVID because he didn’t like it, and of course they players were getting them basically every day,” Everett recalled. “As hard as Jackson had it, Russ had it way worse when it came to that kind of stuff. They talked about football a little bit, they talked about family a little bit, and more just talked about life. Wanted to talk about hard times he had gone through and how he gotten through them, and he talked about the death of his dad and how that affected him, and holding tight to God’s word and scripture and how impactful that had been, so we talked about that for several minutes.
Feb. 12 marks three months since Jackson’s diagnosis. Just like anybody, Jackson has his ups and downs, but he remains resilient. He’s going to kick leukemia’s butt.
“He knows he has to have all these things going on, but it doesn’t overwhelm him,” Everett said. “I think probably in the same way it would ever overwhelm me if I were the one going through it, but he’s really strong. He’s had to go through a lot of hard things over the last three months.”
On May 11, 2012, Wilson was on a plane flying over the city of Seattle and writing down his legacy goals.
Growing up, Wilson’s mom was an ER nurse, and his father was in and out of hospitals dealing with a battle of cancer of his own. Wilson began to think about what he’d like his impact to be like beyond the football field, and how he could uplift others.
“Unfortunately, I had gotten used to hospitals, being around them,” Wilson said in 2019. “That’s one of the toughest places to be because it’s the people you care about most, and I think one of the things I wanted to be able to do in Seattle is… to make an impact for the kids, just go in there and visiting them.”
Wilson got to meet with four or five families in his initial trip to Seattle Children’s during the first week of his rookie minicamp. Nine years later, Wilson has met thousands of kids in his weekly trips known as “Blue Tuesdays."
“I don’t think those kids understand what they do for me, just my soul,” Wilson said. “Just for what they do for what God has called me to be, just giving back and loving other people...
The families Wilson met didn’t know how much he'd change their lives either.
“I want to tell him that everything happens for a reason,” Angie said. “Harper reminds me a lot of Russell, obviously they’re so different, but yet they are so much alike. I want to thank him for that because I don’t know that I would have ever seen it like that before with meeting him.”
“I’ve heard Russell say a lot, to whom much is given, much is required, and the rooms at Seattle Children’s are a really sacred place, and Russ enters them with a lot of love and dignity,” Nina added. “He knows that he has just a few minutes to take a child out of some of the worst days in their lives and insert this key memory that they’ll never forget.”
Walter Payton Man of the Year
Wilson is the driving force behind why Harper wants to one day play in Russell Wilson's FLAG football league in the Seattle area. He is also the reason why Roarke attends charity events like Wilson’s annual celebrity golf tournament to help raises funds for pediatric patients who qualify for immunotherapy research trials at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
They, too, want to make a difference in the lives of others.
And for those reasons alone, not the fact he’s the NFL’s winningest quarterback in nine seasons or one of the league’s highest paid QBs of all-time, they believe Wilson is deserving of the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
The award, which was established in 1970 and renamed for the Hall of Fame running back in 1999, recognizes excellence both on and off-the-field. For the second time in his illustrious career, Wilson is the Seahawks nominee for the prestigious honor.
The NFL will announce the winner of the award among 32 nominees, one from each team, Saturday night in its nationally televised NFL Honors program from Tampa, Florida, on CBS.
Wilson’s friends from Seattle Children’s will be in front of their television screens cheering him on. But win or lose, the Seahawks legend has cemented his legacy in a way that will profoundly impact families like the Boboths, Huffords and Foys for years to come. Wilson is their man of the year.
"We love you," Everett said. "We’re thankful for what you do on the field, but we’re especially proud of the person you are and what you do off the field for your community, that says so much more about a person that any football or baseball or any other game could. Thank you for what you do, keep it up, you’re a good light in the community and we’ll be rooting for you and we hope you win the Walter Payton Man of the Year.”